Girls Only? Is Gender Studies a Women-Only Game?

10 Sep

The series we did on the “pink” issue of Dialogue made me think about why so few men have been involved in discussions of gender.  I asked some of my male friends if they might be willing to comment.  A few them bravely volunteered to post.  This is the first of those posts.  Dallin is a PhD student in the English department at Notre Dame.  His research focuses on Modern British Literature.

“I study Joyce, twentieth-century British and American lit, and–of course–gender.” This is how one of my classmates finished their introduction in one of my English literature seminars. Need I say that she’s a woman? It is a fairly common assumption that gender studies is a default female topic, something nearly every woman scholar has her hands in. Yet this has led to the other assumption that it is only a female subject–that when we say “gender studies,” we really mean “women’s studies.” Thus few men ever wander to that side of the mess hall; while women voraciously discuss gender at their table about, men carry on at their seats with whatever else they were working on before, confident that “somebody else” is handling that subject.

Nevermind, of course, that gender is at least a two-sided subject–but what if one half of the conversation sits mutely?

Let me be open from the beginning: I am a man and I am not studying gender. I am not very familiar with feminist theory or studies of masculinity. I consider myself an interested observer, a neophyte in this area who has dipped his toe once or twice into the pool but has by no means jumped in. Simply, I want to give a personal perspective for why men, especially Mormon men, do not generally engage in gender studies. After some thought, I want to broach three possible reasons. They are–to group them roughly–cultural, political, and pragmatic.

First off, we tend not to see gender as such a pressing part of our identity. Despite all the progress feminism has made, some scholars, like Susan Pinder in her recent book The Second Sex, have pointed out that masculinity still tends to be the “vanilla flavor,” the default gender. Most of the progress made has been to make what has traditionally been male roles–working long hours outside the home, having a career, etc.–more accessible to women with not as much critique of the worthiness or virtue of that type of lifestyle. Thus, while more women enter the workplace, males still don’t feel that threatened because we don’t change our lifestyles much to accommodate them (even if both parents work, women still do most of the housework). Will our gender roles become more pressing in the future? Most likely, especially if current trends of greater female enrollment in universities and the humanities still hold. If men start to become the minority in these professions (though we’re still a ways away from even equality at all levels of professorship), I could see this sparking a greater interest in what it means to be male in current society, history, or literature.

Another issue is the political barriers in gender studies. By this I mean that there are a number of men (including myself) who wonder if their male voice would be taken seriously in a field dominated by women. Not that women will be overtly sexist, but will we have to face uphill battles to legitimate our perspective? Could we say anything critical about the current state of feminism, for example, or would be secluded to male-only issues? I might be completely wrong on this–I’d rather hope that I am–but there are enough horror stories stories out there of academics struggling to be taken seriously outside of their “personal” identity–white academics in African-American studies, for instance. Of course, a lot of these anxieties are misled (there are countless white Americans writing on race or post-colonial issues) but the fear of illegitimacy still lingers. This point, especially looking forward, will continue to deter more LDS men from the field. More and more, gender studies and women studies has aligned itself with queer theory and LGBT studies. Being not only a male but a male from a notoriously conservative religion would inevitably lead to a fear of being “outed” as a member of the church that pushed for Prop. 8.

Which leads to the pragmatic reason: if you have to decide how you are going to define your career, especially in an academic job market that is cut-throat enough, there is little incentive for men and Mormon men to make things harder for themselves than they already are by pursuing a field perceived as more difficult to enter. We like to assume that our academic subjects are reflections of our deepest interests, but everyone is aware that in the age of specialization, there is a lot of calculated maneuvering if you want to put yourself in the best position to find a job. When you combine the fear of not being taken seriously with a topic that feels less “present,” men tend maneuver elsewhere. And from an LDS perspective, when you combine these issues with the problems of men discussing gender in Mormon culture (how would it go over if a priesthood holder started critiquing patriarchy?), its one more minefield that does not seem worth the traverse.

Again, this is not an apologetic, but my gut instinct for this situation. I’m interested in other people’s perspective on this or critiques of the reasons I’ve laid out.


14 Responses to “Girls Only? Is Gender Studies a Women-Only Game?”

  1. ep September 10, 2010 at 2:28 pm #

    Yay! So good to see you again, Dallin. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    “By this I mean that there are a number of men (including myself) who wonder if their male voice would be taken seriously in a field dominated by women.” I am sure you are right, but I also think it’s not the best reason in the world for men not to do gender studies since women in all fields worry about whether their voice will be taken seriously and often have to fight overt sexism in the workplace. It’s how the other half lives.

    And yeah, the whole Prop 8 fiasco is such a tragedy for everyone and will no doubt hinder growth in this field.

  2. Chris H. September 10, 2010 at 2:40 pm #

    I am a male. I deal a lot with feminist theory in my work.

    • amanda5245 September 10, 2010 at 2:54 pm #

      It’s not there aren’t ANY men involved in feminist studies but that there are so few. The joint program in Women’s Studies and History at Michigan enrolled their first male PhD student THIS year.

      • Chris H. September 10, 2010 at 3:25 pm #

        Sorry for my short comment. This topic is one of my favs. I took feminist political theory my senior year. My master’s thesis dealt with a feminist critique of my favorite philosopher. My current project (supposedly my dissy) is dealing with the feminist ethic of care.

        Many of my projects in waiting are heavily influenced by feminist arguments about social constructionism (something Mormons could use a heavy dose of).

        I worked at a community center in Upstate New York between my undergrad and grad school. My boss was an ABD historian from Cornell and his wife was a PhD from the same program. She held a visiting position in Women’s Studies at Hobart. They both heavily discouraged me from doing stuff directly in Women’s Studies (conferences in particular). It was not worth it for a male that said. He was in African-American Studies, so they where both familiar and friendly to Women Studies, but they felt that for a male sticking with political science was the way to go.

        I got similar advice form one of my mentors at the Univ or Utah who held a joint appointment in political science and women’s studies (later gender studies). She worked with feminist political theory, but she enjoyed addressing those issues and questions more within political theory than within womens studies.

        That said, I looked into grad programs in women’s studies. The problem I found was that my field of political philosophy is strong with women’s studies, but not women’s studies departsments.

        I am looking to teach some women’s studies option here at Casper College. The Wyoming system has a WS class titled “Social Justice in the 21st Century.” Coolest course title ever.

  3. amanda5245 September 10, 2010 at 5:13 pm #

    Chris H. — I may have been a bit hasty in reading your comment as well. Your work sounds interesting. I don’t know much about ethics of care but from what I do know, find the emphasis on interdependence refreshing.

    I find it interesting that so many academics warned you away from gender or women’s studies. One of the things I find interesting about women’s studies is the move towards a critical stance towards masculinities. Many feminist historians with whom I have spoken feel that deconstructing manhood may be one way to bring men into the discussion and to destabilize the male gender as a default status. I’m not sure that the turn has actually done what many hoped that it would. In spite of the fascinating work that has been done on men, most people enrolled in the women’s studies program at Michigan or in its certificate program are women. The men who are present tend to self-identify as queer. I fully support the inclusion of men in gender studies and hope to see women’s history became less of a female space.

    That said, I am not sure if I would encourage a student interested in women’s studies to study in a women’s studies department. Although I support interdisciplinary research and am particularly fond of the scholarship coming out of English departments, I think that graduate students need to learn the skills of their discipline and become conversant with them before they can do work that is conversant in many departments/fields. I have read a lot of interdisciplinary work that wouldn’t meet the standards of any of the fields it is dabbling in. I think disciplinary spines are very important.

  4. amanda5245 September 10, 2010 at 5:17 pm #

    Dallin – One question I have is what you think would need to happen in the LDS Church before patriarchy could be critiqued within it. It seems to me that one of the things that needs to happen within the church before meaningful change can occur is that church leaders need to accept that there is a gender problem and that priesthood holders must be willing to critique patriarchy in order for that to happen.

    BUT — I’m not sure I see a way in the current environment for that happen. I also think that you are right that the Prop 8 fiasco is going to set the church back as far as this goes.

  5. Chris H. September 10, 2010 at 5:20 pm #

    “I think disciplinary spines are very important.”

    I totally agree. This may have been the motivation of those mentoring me.

  6. BHodges September 10, 2010 at 5:51 pm #

    Thanks for the thoughts, Dallin. Like you, I’ve barely dipped a few toes into that particular pond.

  7. Becca September 11, 2010 at 6:57 pm #

    Good points, Dallin, thanks for posting!

    I admit it’s really hard not to pull out the “you’ve-never-been-female-so-how-could-you-know” card whenever a man disagrees with me on some gendered issue. I can definitely imagine that any controversial point made by a male Women’s Studies scholar would probably be discounted offhand by others in his field. But going into Women’s Studies isn’t the only way to study gender.

    I agree with Chris’s professor’s advice and Amanda’s comment on disciplinary spines. What I mean when I say I study “gender” is that I study development economics with a deliberate gender-awareness. Gender doesn’t always determine what I study, but I always consider the possibility that there might be a gendered dynamic at work in any political or economic phenomenon. I know dozens men in my field who do this very successfully. If all academics approached their research in a similar way, we wouldn’t necessarily need a separate, nebulous “women’s studies” area.

    Dallin suggests that it’s often just too hard for LDS men to care about gender issues and still pass as upstanding church members; I don’t think this is entirely fair. Sexist institutions that hurt women also hurt men, children, and families. The LDS community has a long way to go towards being radically equitable, particularly with regard to gender attitudes and roles. All is not well in Zion, and willfully ignoring issues that primarily concern the voiceless female majority of church members in order to preserve one’s own social standing is hardly praiseworthy or Christian. When the BYU Women’s Research Institute got axed last year, a lot of BYU students (men and women) made arguments to the effect of: ‘Mormon women are happy and treated well, why would any Mormon need to study women?’ The WRI existed precisely to combat this kind of insularity. But as both Dallin and Amanda point out, the Prop 8 mess has contributed to a lot of counterproductive knee-jerking.

    • ep September 12, 2010 at 3:54 pm #

      I heart Becca.

    • Dallin September 13, 2010 at 8:02 pm #

      Thanks for all your interesting comments and points. Chris obviously has much more experience in this area, so I would defer to him more on this area. I hope my post help laid out why I think academically-minded LDS men, like myself, tend to shy away from gender studies.

      To tackle both Amanda’s question and Becca’s point at the same time, I don’t necessarily think that Mormon men can’t be upstanding members while studying gender. I think it is really tough, if not impossible, to be upstanding members and professionally-respected gender scholars. It seems that the dissonance of supporting (even if only nominally) current Church organization and priesthood doctrine while engaging with critical gender theory would either force him to change is mind one way or the other or not be taken seriously as either a scholar or a Mormon. Not that Mormon theology is necessarily in direct opposition to gender theory, but the current Mormon church is, in many respects, in direct opposition to gender politics. It is an issue of professionalization, not necessarily beliefs. Undoubtedly, gender does affect LDS men, women, children, and families, and it definitely is worthy of study, but I see this this as a professional problem: how can you be taken seriously as a scholar of gender and gender theory if you still raise your right hand to support the 15 older men running the show? For women, I think there is more wiggle-room for being card-carrying members of both. For men, I’m not sure that’s an option.
      What change would have to happen? Well, probably a lot. That being said, if there is one avenue I see, I think history might be able to approach the issue of men and patriarchy, investigating not only the affect of polygamy on women but on the men who participated. There is probably enough distance there to explore the issue without causing too much of a stir.

      • Chris H. September 13, 2010 at 8:05 pm #

        “I hope my post help laid out why I think academically-minded LDS men, like myself, tend to shy away from gender studies.”

        You did a very good job of explaining this.

  8. Chris H. September 13, 2010 at 8:40 pm #

    On an additionally note (can’t help it, I love this blog):

    I am reading Eric Foners “Who Owns History?: Rethinking the Past in a Changing World” over the weekend.

    In discussing his own career path, he talks about the controversy that arose when the first class on African-American history was taught by him, a white male. I think there is a similar nervousness about heterosexual males in women’s/gender studies.

    • amanda5245 September 14, 2010 at 7:47 pm #

      Thanks for the suggestion for reading (and for the plug for the blog). He’s coming to Michigan later this semester, so I’ll have to check this out before he comes.

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